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Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Category: The Road to War

The Prince and the Pauper

Illustration of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in the Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere 12 July 1914

“Even assuming the case that nobody else interferes: what should we gain from it? Only another pack of thieves and murderers and scoundrels and a few plum trees.” Archduke Francis Ferdinand on war against Serbia

They only met once.

The prince was Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the oldest son of Francis Joseph’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig – hence the Emperor’s nephew. A few years after the suicide of the Emperor’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889, he was named Heir Apparent to the Habsburg thrones in Austria and Hungary. His youth was unexceptional except for concerns about his health; growing up, he spent much time at the court of Archduke Friedrich and Archduchess Isabella in Bratislava, whose daughter – Archduchess Maria Christina, his cousin – he was believed to marry one day. But then it was found out that his amorous chivalry was directed to one of Isabella’s ladies in waiting, the Bohemian Countess Sophie Chotek, and the fat was in the fire. Frau Chotek, the descendant of an ancient yet impoverished Bohemian family, was not an acceptable match according to the Habsburg family code, and the Emperor forbade the marriage.

Yet in this matter the young prince showed tenacity – or stubbornness. He began to solicit support for his choice of bride and was able to mobilize, among others, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pope Leo XIII, under whose concerted salvos Francis Joseph eventually declared his capitulation. He would allow the marriage under the conditions of a morganatic union, that is, neither the wife nor eventual children had claims to Habsburg titles, privileges or possessions, and that the children were excluded from the royal and imperial succession. The Archduke had to swear a public oath and sign a deed of quitclaim, on June 28, 1900 – fourteen years, to the very day, before the couple met their death at Sarajevo.

Francis Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi) and their children - Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduchess Marie Valerie, Archduchess Gisela and her husband, Prince Leopold of Bavaria and their grandchildren
Francis Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi) and their children – Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduchess Marie Valerie, Archduchess Gisela and her husband, Prince Leopold of Bavaria and their grandchildren

The debacle of the marriage was not the sole reason for the increasing tension between Emperor and Prince. The Emperor was conciliative, the Prince abrasive, and, on top of it, sought “to exercise an influence on the policy of the Monarchy which the Emperor could ill brook. Their frequent sharp discussions resulted in mutual feelings of fear and hatred.” Despite his official status, the Prince was excluded from the business of the imperial administration as much as possible, and in his military capacity, despite having been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, was entrusted only with decorative tasks. His character, Luigi Albertini writes …

… was complex and full of contradictions. He hated flattery and was wont to say of anyone who cringed to him: “He is no good, he is a toady.” But on the other hand – writes Brosch [1] – “he could never bear direct contradiction”, yet demanded the unvarnished truth and those around him had the difficult task of presenting the truth which he demanded in a tactful form acceptable to his pride.”[1] Colonel A. Brosch was Head of Franz Ferdinand’s Chancery and Aide-de-camp.

But he had comprehension of and a talent for politics, and understood the principal challenge for the Dual Monarchy – the question of nationalities. For his – shocking – habit of asking people of lower status questions and contemplate their answers, he was held to know more than the Emperor of the true situation of the realm; more than what Albertini called the “official opinion.”

His political outlook was in essence anti-Hungarian, and this – mutual – hostility formed his opinion on the treatment of the southern Slavs and his conviction that, in the long run, the monarchy could survive only as a trialist or federal state, in which Germans, Magyars and Slavs possessed their own statehood. His disapproval of the “Ausgleich“, in which the Magyars had taken, as he saw it, the whole nation hostage, brought him into sharp conflict with the Emperor, who was the founder and guarantor of the system. The Prince remained a vocal opponent of the Hungarian travesty of parliamentary procedure, in which “the eight million non-Magyars (not counting the Croats) were represented by 21 deputies and the eight and a half million Magyars by 392.”

Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand at manoeuvres in 1908
Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand at manoeuvres in 1908

Being marked as a potential reformer, he was the natural nemesis of Pan-Slavism, which, by the second half of the nineteenth century, had pervaded the monarchy internally as well as outside of her, and found a political basis in the small kingdom of Serbia, which had been proclaimed by Prince Milan Obrenović in 1882, four years after the Congress of Berlin had made it a newly independent nation.

When the juvenile kingdom responded quickly to the native paraphernalia of modern politics – parties, committees, newspapers – King Milan tried autocracy, unsuccessfully enough that he had to abdicate formally in 1889, which, however, did not enjoin him from keeping the reins during the regency of his son Alexandar – in a burlesque dual kingship that ran from 1897 to 1900 – to the ministrations of whom Queen Mother Nathalie added her own corruptive skills. When the just as autocratic-minded son married the notorious courtesan Draga Masin, a former maid of honour to his mother who was also ten years older than the groom – the news of their engagement “alone was enough to trigger the resignation of the entire cabinet,” including that of Minister of the Interior Djordje Gencit, who had his own, personal and intimate memories of the new queen.

Old King Milan was horrified at his son’s family plans and reposed to exile in Austria, where he died in 1901. The son continued a very personal reign -­ interpreting and, if he found it necessary, changing the constitution according to his whims, closing critical newspapers, throwing personal enemies into prison and naming schools, villages and, as Christopher Clark notes, even regiments of the army after his queen. The rumour that the king – in lieu of a natural heir, for the queen remained childless – planned “to designate Queen Draga’s brother Nikodije Lunjevica as successor to the Serbian throne”, finally provoked the military, which was complaining about arrears of pay and insufficient promotions – the royal couple was following the Balkan tradition of promoting friends and relatives to the main posts – ­to take action.

A talented lieutenant of the army, Dragutin Dimitriević, became the nerve centre of the military conspiracy that formed itself in the summer of 1901 with the aim of replacing the royal couple. The young officer’s abilities had been early recognized by the military leadership, and he had been given a post on the Serbian General Staff a week after his graduation from the military academy. Professor Stanoje Stanojević, Dean of the University of Belgrade, revealed to the world in a 1922 essay on the murder of the Archduke the responsibility of this man and his organization, Ujedinjenje ili smrt! [Union or Death!), also called the “Black Hand”, for the murders of Sarajevo, which the initial Austrian investigation, discussed below, had erroneously blamed on Narodna Odbrana, the Serbian Defence Organization, that had sprung up in the aftermath of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; both organizations, however, overlapped. In his pamphlet, Stanojević gave the following brief summary of the activities of this officer, who eventually was to become Chief of the Serbian Military Intelligence Service:

“A restless character full of the spirit of adventure, Dimitriević was continually planning conspiracies and outrages. In 1903, he was one of the chief organizers of the conspiracy against King Alexander, in 1911 he sent an emissary to assassinate either the Austrian Emperor or the Heir Apparent. In February 1914 he conceited with a Bulgarian secret revolutionary committee to assassinate the Bulgarian King Ferdinand.

He took over and organized the outrage against the Austrian Heir Apparent in 1914. In 1916 from Corfu he sent an emissary to attempt the assassination of the Greek King Constantine and in the same year he seems to have sought contact with the enemy and organized an outrage against the Serbian Heir Apparent, Prince Alexander. It was for this reason that he was condemned to death and shot on the Salonika front in June 1917.”

Dragutin Dimitriević, right, with two assistants
Dragutin Dimitriević, right, with two assistants

Luigi Albertini was able to entertain a correspondence with a few high-ranking former members of the Black Hand after the war. The membership total had been wildly exaggerated, as Colonel Cedomilj Popović, one of the organization’s founders, told him. It was not more than 2,500 but…

“Union or Death found wide approval and membership would have been much higher if the doors had been open to all. Those who were admitted had to be tested of loyalty and capable of rendering practical services.”

What about the organization’s objectives? Popović explained that…

“Union or Death had for its object the unification of all the Southern Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in a national unity. The Belgrade Central Committee comprised, in addition to the members from the Kingdom of Serbia, delegates representing all unredeemed Yugoslav territories: i.e. one for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who was Gaftnović, one for Old Serbia and Macedonia, one for Montenegro, one for Croatia, one for Slovenia and Sytmia, one for the Voivodina, one for Dalmatia, who was Oskar Tartaglia. It is affirmed that Dragutin Dimitriević, in 1917, died shouting: ‘Long live Yugoslavia!'”

Professor Stanojević was fascinated by the personality of his subject and describes Dimitriević as a born conspirator, a mixture of Fouché and Mazarin, perhaps.

“Gifted and cultured, honourable, a convincing speaker, a sincere patriot, personally courageous, filled with ambition, energy and the capacity for work, Dragutin Dimitriević exercised exceptional influence on those around him, in particular on his associates and on junior officers, who were all his inferiors in qualities of mind and character.

He had the characteristics which cast a spell on men. His arguments were always striking and convincing. He could represent the most intractable matters as mere trifles, the most hazardous enterprises as innocent and harmless. Withal he was in every respect a remarkable organizer. He kept all the threads in his own hand and even his most intimate friends only knew what was their own immediate concern.

But at the same time he was extraordinarily conceited and thoroughly affected. Ambitious as he was, he had a taste for working in secret, but he liked it to be known that he was doing secret work and that he kept all the threads in his own hand. He was incapable of distinguishing what was possible from what was not and perceiving the limits of responsibility and power. He had no clear conception of civil and political life and its requirements. He saw only his own aims and pursued them ruthlessly and without scruple. He loved adventure and danger and secret meetings and mysterious activities. How far his private ambition reached is hard to say. His political ideas were dim and confused, but he was extraordinarily resolute in carrying out anything that he had set his mind on. Dimitriević was convinced that his own ideas were the right ones on all matters, events and circumstances. He believed that his opinions and activities enjoyed the monopoly of patriotism. Hence, anyone who did not agree with him could not in his eyes be either honourable or wise or a patriot. He, without a doubt, was all this, but he found it hard to acknowledge it in others, apart from those who obeyed his orders. It was for him to plan, organize and command, for others to obey and carry out his orders without questioning.”

The origins of “Union or Death!” date back to the conspiracy of Serbian officers to murder the royal couple and other enemies of the people. The young lieutenant, already a leader, fixed the date for the first attempt on September 11, 1901, at the occasion of the royal ball held on the queen’s birthday. Christopher Clark remarks:

“In a plan that seems lifted from the pages of an Ian Fleming novel, two officers were assigned to mount an attack on the Danube power plant that supplied Belgrade with electricity, while another was to disable the smaller station serving the building where the ball was in progress. Once the lights were shut off, the four assassins in attendance at the ball planned to set fire to the curtains, sound the fire alarms and liquidate the king and his wife by forcing them to ingest poison (this method was chosen in order to circumvent a possible search for firearms). The poison was successfully tested on a cat, but in every other respect the plan was a failure. The power plant turned out to be too heavily guarded and the queen decided in any case not to attend the ball. Undeterred by this and other failed attempts, the conspirators worked hard over the next two years at expanding the scope of the coup. Over one hundred officers were recruited, including many younger military men.”

It was eventually decided to attempt the assassination at the royal palace, where the couple’s presence could be guaranteed. Aware of conspiracies – which were even acknowledged by the London Times on April 27, 1903 – the king had beefed up security and it took the conspirators a long time and great trouble to circumvent or penetrate the successive layers of royal guards. The event itself became a legend for its outrageous cruelty. In the early morning of June 11, 1903, twenty-eight conspirators – all army officers – breached the palace doors and made for the royal bedchamber, the entry to which they entrusted to a box of dynamite. The huge blast that ensued short-circuited the supply of electricity and delayed the posse until they had acquired candles. The royal couple – barely dressed – was hiding in a tiny service room and it took nearly two hours until they were discovered. While the search was underway, death squads dispatched into town murdered the Queen’s two brothers as well as the Prime Minister and the Minister of War.

A second search of the royal apartment eventually discovered the quarry, and, after assuring the king of their oath and peaceful intentions – to draw him out – the schemers aimed at the royal couple a cloud of pistol shots.

“An orgy of gratuitous violence followed. The corpses were stabbed with swords, torn with a bayonet, partially disembowelled and hacked with an axe until they were mutilated beyond recognition, according to the later testimony of the king’s traumatized Italian barber, who was ordered to collect the bodies and dress them for burial. The body of the queen was hoisted to the railing of the bedroom window and tossed, virtually naked and slimy with gore, into the gardens. It was reported that as the assassins attempted to do the same with Alexandar, one of his hands closed momentarily around the railing. An officer hacked through the fist with a sabre and the body fell, with a sprinkle of severed digits, to the earth. By the time the assassins had gathered in the garden to have a smoke and inspect the results of their handiwork, it had begun to rain.”

Subsequently, the conspirators replaced the Obrenović dynasty with the current head of the Karadjordjević clan, Petar, whom they recalled from Swiss exile. The great-grandfather of the new king had been the “swarthy former cattle herd ‘Black George’ (Serbian: ‘Kara Djordje’) Petrović, who “had led an uprising in 1804 that succeeded for some years in driving the Ottomans out of Serbia, but fled into Austrian exile in 1813 when the Ottomans mounted a counteroffensive.” In 1815,  another insurrection led by one certain Milos Obrenović had more success; the Ottomans accepted Serbian home rule as a principality under Turkish suzerainty, and Milos’ first order of business was to kill Black George upon his return from exile, enabling the Obrenović family to rule Serbia until the slaughter of June 1903.

Quite surprisingly, the new King Petar I appeared to have learned from his studies of politics and history – he translated John Stuart Mill’sOn Liberty” into Serbian – ­the duties of a constitutional monarch, who “reigned but did not govern“, and did actually become one – within the bounds that the conspirators, who never disbanded, allowed. But they changed their outlook, and perhaps their inclinations – although we cannot be sure that they abandoned assassination as a political means, given what Stanojević says about Dimitriević’s subsequent career- from regicide to Pan­-Slavist. The conspiracy, however, continued to be a force outside the authority of king, parliament or civil government, which was led between 1904 and 1918 chiefly by Nicolas Pasić, chairman of the Radical Party, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The conspirators had infiltrated the government already in the preparation of the coup; in its wake they were able to “secure for themselves the most desirable military and government posts.” Yet they did face opposition.

Within the army itself, a military “counter-conspiracy” concentrated in the fortress town of Nis emerged under the leadership of Captain Milan Novaković, who produced a manifesto calling for the dismissal from the service of sixty-eight named prominent regicides. Novaković was swiftly arrested and after a spirited defence of his actions, he and his accomplices were tried, found guilty and sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment by a military court. When he left prison two years later, Novaković resumed his public attacks on the regicides and was incarcerated again. In September 1907, he and a male relative perished in mysterious circumstances during an alleged escape attempt, a scandal that triggered outrage in parliament and the liberal press. The question of the relationship between the army and the civilian authorities thus remained unresolved after the assassinations of 1903, a state of affairs that would shape Serbia’s handling of events in 1914.

The Radical Party was a specific Serbian political product, combining run-of-the-mill liberalism à la late Nineteenth Century with fervid nationalism that sought the unity of all Serbs, or perhaps all Southern Slavs, in a Greater Serbia, whose future borders, however, depended on the person one asked. The fundamental, semi-official map of Serbian nationalism, Christopher Clark explains …

… was a secret memorandum drawn up by the Serbian interior minister Ilija Garasanin for Prince Alexandar Karadjordjević in 1844. Known after its publication in 1906 as Nacertanije (from the Old Serbian nhcrt,”draft”), Garasanin’s proposal sketched out a “Program for the National and Foreign Policy of Serbia”.

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of this document on generations of Serb politicians and patriots; in time it became the Magna Carta of Serb nationalism. Garasanin opened his memorandum with the observation that Serbia is “small, but must not remain in this condition”. The first commandment of Serbian policy, he argued, must be the “principle of national unity”; by which he meant the unification of all Serbs within the boundaries of a Serbian state: “Where a Serb dwells, that is Serbia.”

The historical template for this expansive vision of Serbian statehood was the medieval empire of Stepan Dusan, a vast swath of territory encompassing most of the present-day Serbian republic, along with the entirety of present-day Albania, most of Macedonia, and all of Central and Northern Greece, but not Bosnia, interestingly enough.

French Map of 'Greater Serbia'
French Map of ‘Greater Serbia’

Tsar Dusan’s empire had supposedly collapsed after a defeat at the hands of the Turks on Kosovo Field on 28 June 1389. But this setback, Garasanin argued, had not undermined the Serbian state’s legitimacy; it had merely interrupted its historical existence. The “restoration” of a Greater Serbia unifying all Serbs was thus no innovation, but the expression of an ancient historical right.

“They cannot accuse usof seeking something new, unfounded, of constituting a revolution or an upheaval, but rather everyone must acknowledge that it [Greater Serbia] is politically necessary, that it was founded in very ancient times and has its roots in the former political and national life of the Serbs.

Garasanin’s argument thus exhibited that dramatic foreshortening of historical time that can sometimes be observed in the discourses of integral nationalism; it rested, moreover, upon the fiction that Tsar Dusan’s sprawling, multi-ethnic, composite, medieval polity could be conflated with the modern idea of a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation-state. Serb patriots saw no inconsistency here, since they argued that virtually all the inhabitants of these lands were essentially Serbs. Vuk Karadzić, the architect of the modern Serbo-Croat literary language and author of a famous nationalist tract, “Srbi svi i svuda” (‘Serbs all and everywhere’, published in 1836), spoke of a nation of 5 million Serbs speaking the “Serbian language” and scattered from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Banat of Temesvar (eastern Hungary, now in western Romania), the Backa (a region extending from northern Serbia into southern Hungary), Croatia, Dalmatia and the Adriatic coast from Trieste to northern Albania. Of course there were some in these lands, Karadzić conceded (he was referring in particular to the Croats), “who still find it difficult to call themselves Serbs, but it seems likely that they will gradually become used to it.”

The obvious problem was how to convince Turks, Greek and Austrians to “acknowledge” the history-born necessity of a Greater Serbia, so that they might evacuate the provinces indicated by the Serbs as their future possessions and whose indigenous populations longed to be awarded Serbian ethnicity, nationality and citizenship. Because some of the intended beneficiaries were not yet aware of the good fortune the future held in stock, the liberalization project needed to proceed somewhat clandestinely, and no one was better suited to this task than conspirator and regicide Dimitriević who was then a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.

But this was not the full extent of his activities. In the wake of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had led to the emergence of the Narodna Odbrana, there had remained a deep division between the official Serbian government, which had to plan and act within the boundaries of generally acknowledged political limits, and the nationalist hotheads who accepted no restriction. In early 1911, the political activist Bogdan Radenković began to contact nationalist sympathizers from all walks of life, and, in the presence of Dimitriević, four of his fellow officer-regicides and another civilian, formed on March 3 in Belgrade the secret brotherhood “Ujedinjenje ili smrt!“, Union or Death, which eventually became known as the “Black Hand”. In today’s parlance, it was a terrorist organization, adopting rituals from the Freemasons and combining them with the cell system of the underground communists. It thrived, as such clubs do, mostly on the self-aggrandizement of their founders – the conviction that they were to alter history. In their case, as we will see, they succeeded. Neophytes were inducted by meeting their hooded future brethren in a dark room and made to swear the following oath:

“I [name], in joining the organisation Union or Death, swear by the sun that warms me, by the earth that nourishes me, before God, by the blood of my ancestors, on my honour and on my life, that I will from this moment until my death be faithful to the laws of this organisation, and that I will always be ready to make any sacrifice for it.

I swear before God, on my honour and on my life, that I will execute all missions and commands without question.

I swear before God, on my honour and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organisation into my grave with me. May God and my comrades in the organisation be my judges if, knowingly or not, I should ever violate this oath.”

It was a show, but impressive and designed to make an imprint on the mostly young members-to-be which were attracted to the world of secret male bonding – Christopher Clark clearly recognized the strong homoerotic tendencies of the fraternity:

The milieu in which Dimitriević deployed these gifts [of inducing trust and imposing his will] was emphatically masculine. Women were a marginal presence in his adult life; he never showed any sexual interest in them. His natural habitat, and the scene of all his intrigues, was the smoke-filled, men-only world of the Belgrade coffee-houses — a space at once private and public, where conversations could be seen without necessarily being heard. The best-known surviving photograph of him depicts the burly moustachioed intriguer with two associates in a characteristically conspirational pose.

Given the secretive origins and character of the organization, it cannot surprise that Ujedinjenje ili smrt! subverted the civil government as easily, quickly and profoundly as it had undermined the military sphere; its members also infiltrated the various semi-official (Narodna Odbrana) and secret societies as well as the border police, spy networks and telegraph offices. Oddly enough, some party politicians and government officials mistook “Union or Death!”for an internal revolutionary committee, suspecting it to attempt domestic subversion in the furtherance of overthrowing the civil government. “This misreading,” Christopher Clark points out, “made its way into many of the diplomatic records” and “would continue to befuddle the Austrian authorities during the crisis of July 1914.”

In the wake of the Balkan Wars of 1912/13, the recently acquired provinces were admitted to the benefits of modern Serbian government. The uncertain state of security, alas, disallowed the introduction of civil liberties, and many Turkish public buildings – schools, offices, and, naturally, mosques – had to be destroyed lest they might serve as hideouts for Turkish terrorists. The latter were presumed to exist in such multitudes that the imposition of martial law and the frequent execution of suspects became a regrettable but necessary side effect on the way into a brighter future. Critical voices began to appear in international newspapers, but the Serbian Foreign Office was, fortunately, able to rely on the British Ambassador, Sir Dayrell Crackanthorpe, who, of his own volition, corrected erroneous reports of his underlings, who presumed to criticize the sort of small errors that could not be avoided in the noble task.

It seemed to be a sign of the efficiency of Austrian and, perhaps, German propagandists that the administrative reforms in the newly liberated areas did not find the undivided applause of the international observership; especially British diplomats appeared susceptible to the disinformation campaign. From Monastir on the southern border, for example, the British Vice Consul Charles Greig reported “that Moslems under Serbian rule have nothing whatsoever to expect but periodical massacre, certain exploitation and final ruin.” His colleague in Skopje related “systematic intimidation, arbitrary detentions, beatings, rapes, village-burnings and massacres by Serbs in the annexed areas.” Less than two weeks later, Mr. Greig warned that the “Bulgarian and especially the Moslem populations in the districts of Perlepe, Krchevo and Krushevo [were] in danger of extermination by the very frequent and barbarous massacres and pillage to which they are subjected by Serbian bands” and that “murder and outrage of other kinds by bands of Serbian comitaji (terror groups) and persons in league with them” created outright anarchy. His Excellency Dayrell Crackanthorpe, however, was a good friend of the Serbs and did his best to suppress the reports he believed to be entirely fabricated, and it was only “the cumulative detail of the reports emerging from the annexed areas, combined with corroborating accounts from Romanian, Swiss and French officials that persuaded the British Foreign Office that the news of Macedonian atrocities should not be dismissed as Austrian propaganda.”

While “the Serbian government showed no interest whatsoever in preventing further outrages or in instigating an investigation of those that had already occurred,” there were voices which saw the true cause of the horrors in the recently occupied areas along the borders to Greece and Bulgaria in an administrative decree that subordinated the military authorities – who considered these areas their personal playground – to the civil government (as the result of the Balkan wars, Serbia had grown from 18,650 to 33,891 square miles and acquired more than 1,500,000 new inhabitants). The officer corps mounted a protest that brought down the – once again – Pasić-led cabinet, and the spectre of a military takeover appeared upon the horizon. The Austrian Ambassador in Belgrade reported to Vienna on May 8, 1914:

“The conflict between the Government and the conspirator party (Crna Ruka,
Serb for “Black Hand) ... has become so aggravated in the last few weeks that a violent clash between the two rivals for power seems not impossible. … The King, who owes his throne to the conspirators, does not quite venture to side openly with them, but his sympathies belong to the Crna Ruka,as do those of the Crown Prince. … The Crna Ruka being probably none too fastidious in its choice of means to gain its ends, I regard the possibility of violent eruptions, even of an overthrow of the Government or a coup d’état,as not entirely inconceivable developments … unless the Government at the last moment capitulates to the military party, as it has done up to now.”

Facing enlarged political instability, Belgrade’s sponsors, Russia and France -­ the latter of whom had given her yet another credit (which amounted to twice the national budget of 1912) in 1914 – resorted to the somewhat unusual step that the Russian Ambassador Hartwig, by some believed the country’s true suzerain, “declared publicly that Russia’s Balkan policies required Pasić’s retention in office,” and Paris made it known that no other government than the present could hope to receive further loans. These were clear messages, but still, no one knows what might have transpired had not the beginning of the Great War – only a few weeks later – given the Serbian army plenty of concern.

Again, in the continent’s opposite corner, improvement in Anglo-German relations persisted; Winston Churchill mused that “the spring and summer of 1914 were marked in Europe by an exceptional tranquillity. … Naval rivalry had at the moment ceased to be a cause of friction, it was certain that we could not be overtaken as far as capital ships were concerned,” and a professor of economy noted that “Germany, from 1911, was the best market of all [for British exports].” This caused fear in St. Petersburg that the coalition for the war against Germany – which would remove the true obstacle to the possession of the Black Sea Straits – might fall apart at late notice. Even Paris seemed to falter. The former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux – “suspected of softness towards Germany” and thus “hounded from office” in 1912 – rejoined the French government as Minister of Finance in December 1913 and it was thought possible that he might emerge as the Prime Minister of a coalition of Radicals and Socialists, which many believed would choose a more constructive, peaceful policy towards Germany than the revanchism impersonated by President Poincaré. The Belgian Ambassador Guillaume reported to Brussels in early 1914:

“I feel certain that Europe would profit from the policies of M. Caillaux, the Radicals and the Radical-Socialists. As I have already told you, MM. Poincaré, Delcassé, Millerand and their friends have created and pushed the current policies of nationalism, militarism and chauvinism. … I see in them the greatest threat to the peace of Europe today.”

Beginning with the annual General Staff conference of 1911, France and Russia reworked their strategy. Poincaré’s bellicosity ended France’s earlier reluctance to come to Russia’s aid over some Balkan issue – which had accounted for France’s caution during the Bosnian annexation crisis – yet it was not him alone who developed a more military orientation: “the pacifist and anti-military popular mood that had prevailed in 1905 made way for a more belligerent attitude,” and “by the autumn of 1912, Poincaré was firmly supporting a Russian armed intervention in the Balkans.” Yet this would necessarily lead to war: Austria would have to match a Russian mobilization – no way around it – which would bring in Germany, under the terms of the Dual Alliance, which would, in turn, bring in France and Great Britain on the side of Russia. Hostilities would open with a simultaneous attack of both France and Russia into Germany. Christopher Clark remarks on Franco-Russian war planning:

The question of how fast and how many men Russia would mobilize in the event of the cases foederis, and in what direction it would deploy them, dominated the Franco-Russian inter-staff discussions in the summers of 1912 and 1913. In the conversations of July 1912, the French CGS, Joseph Joffre, requested that the Russians double-track all their railway lines to the East Prussian and Galician frontiers. Some strategically important lines were even to be quadrupled to allow faster transit of large troop numbers.

The Franco-Russian Naval Convention of July 1912, which provided for closer cooperation and coordination of the two navies, was another fruit of these efforts. And there was a gradual improvement in the Russian assurances – whereas Zhilinsky promised in 1912 to attack Germany with 800,000 men by day 15 after mobilization, in the following year he felt able, once the improvements were put in place, to shave a further two days off the schedule.

The direction of mobilization was another area of concern. The protocols of the inter-staff discussions record the tireless efforts of the French staff officers to keep the Russians focused on Germany rather than Austria as the principal opponent. For while the French were willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Balkan casus belli, [1] the entire military purpose of the alliance (from France’s perspective) would be defeated if the Russians deployed the bulk of their military might against the Habsburg Empire and left the French to deal on their own with a massive German attack in the west.When this issue was raised at the 1912 meeting, [the Russian Chief of Staff] Zhilinsky objected that the Russians also had other threats to think about … [Sweden and Turkey] … but Joffre insisted that the “destruction of Germany’s forces” ( ‘l’aneantissement des forces de l’Allemagne’) -would in effect resolve all the other problems facing the alliance; it was essential to concentrate on this objective “at any price”.

[1] This was the original sin, so to say, of the change in the Franco-Russian Military Convention – now other than defensive scenarios, i.e. a direct attack of Austria or Germany on Russia, might invoke the casus foederis and lead to war.

Peace on the continent now rested on the slender shoulders of the pauper. His name was Gavrilo Princip; he had been born in a Bosnian village in 1894, and attended “irregular schooling in various places.” A somewhat sickly youth – he was to die in 1918 of tuberculosis – he arrived in Belgrade in 1912 to report for the last grade of high school, yet immediately felt driven to spend most of his time in the Serbian nationalist coffee-house scene. His exalted pro-Serbism had motivated him to memorize the entirety of “The Mountain Wreath“, an epos about the self-sacrificing Serbian tyrannicide Milos Obilić, composed and published in 1847 by the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro. That the supreme expression of Serbian nationalism was tyrannicide, the young patriot, whose apprehension of Serbian history was that of a continuing enterprise in idealism and sacrifice, readily accepted. In reality, Serbian patriotism had lately expressed itself more in murder, theft and rape. Luigi Albertini explains:

To understand the atmosphere in which this young generation lived, one must bear in mind the Serbian Comitaji movement after the Second Balkan War. For ten years, from 1902 to 1912, Comitajism was the leading element in all Balkan turbulence.

The first Comitajism was of Bulgaro-Macedonian origins. In 1902 armed bands were formed in Macedonia, subsidized by the Bulgarian Government, for the purpose of causing disorders which would focus the attention of Europe on the Balkans and lead to European intervention such as would end Ottoman domination in Macedonia. This province was either to become autonomous or be annexed to Bulgaria.

Alarmed by the claims which these bands were staking out for Bulgaria in Macedonia, Serb and Greek revolutionary circles, in touch with their respective governments, recruited armed bands in Serbia and Greece. In Serbia, they arose as early as 1905.

The Comitaji crossed into Macedonia provoking disorders, blowing up bridges, attacking small bodies of gendarmes, committing murders, acting not only against the Turkish authorities but also against the private property of Moslems. When Turkish troops intervened they disappeared over the frontiers into their respective states, from whose governments they received arms and money. In the Balkan wars, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian Comitaji had moved in advance and in support of their respective armies, fighting without regard for the rules of warfare and often indulging in arson and massacre.

One of these battalions of Comitaji fighters was commanded by Major Voja Tankosić , who in 1903 had taken part in the plot against the
Obrenović royal pair and had ordered the shooting of Queen Draga’s brothers. It mainly consisted of young Serbs who were Austro-Hungarian subjects. After the war, the Serbian Government was unable to get rid of them. Crowded in Belgrade, they spent time in cafés, bragging of their exploits and dilating plans for more wars and conspiracies. … After the defeat of Turkey and then of Bulgaria, their plots for wars and outrages took Austria-Hungary as their objective.

Here were young patriots, if one can call them so, that Dragutin Dimitriević, now Colonel and, under the code name “Apis”, head of the Serbian Military Intelligence Service, could put to good use. He ordered his assistant Tankosić to select a few of the young men for a special job. The former Comitaji leader recruited three nineteen year-old Bosnian kids, Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinović and Gavrilo Princip, all of them from “poor families and unhappy households.” Cabrinović and Grabez “had suffered under and rebelled against the male authority figures in their own early lives,” which draws an interesting parallel to Hitler’s troubles with his father. As Christopher Clark remarks, these young men were classic prey for conspirators:

These boys had little in the way of bad habits. They were made of that sombre, youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon. Alcohol was not to their taste. Although they were heterosexual by romantic inclination, they did not seek the society of young women. They read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets. The boys dwelt at length on the suffering of the Serbian nation, for which they blamed everyone but the Serbs themselves, and felt the slights and humiliations of the least of their countrymen as if they were their own.

Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip
Grabez, Cabrinović and Princip

The man whom Gavrilo Princip approached for patriotic guidance was, apparently by sheer accident, an old terror hand himself and a former subaltern of Major Tankosić, Milan Ciganović, who, by virtue of his being a titular employee of the Serbian State Railway was ideally placed for the intelligence and terror business. The story goes that Princip asked him outright whether he knew how to get bombs. Ciganović did, and informed his old boss Tankosić about Princip and his acquaintances. At this early opportunity, in 1912, Tankosić rejected Princip as too young and frail, but in early 1914 changed his mind and reported Princip to Dimitriević. Since the boys had no experience whatsoever with conspiracies, Ciganović was assigned as their handler. On May 27, he provided them with four revolvers and six 22 pound (ca. 10 kg) bombs, courtesy of the Serbian State Arsenal at Kragujevac, and took them to Belgrade’s Topcider Park for weapon training. In addition, Ciganović supplied 150 dinars in cash, a map of Bosnia, cyanide ampoules – with which the assassins were to commit suicide after the attempt, to frustrate investigations – and a letter for Major Rade Popović [1] of the Border Guards, who was a member of Ujedinjenje iii smrt!as well as a contact for Narodna Odbrana. The boys were then smuggled into Bosnia – Cabrinović by members of the underground railway established and used by the Black Hand and the military, and Princip and Grabez, it would seem, by the border police themselves – to Tuzla, where they met Cabrinović. While there will be a word or two, below, to the topic of the Serbian and Russian government’s possible foreknowledge of the Sarajevo plot, the local Bosnian patriots were easily trusted with the Big Secret. A schoolteacher working for the smugglers, who took Princip and Grabez over the border to Tuzla, was reported to have told the Kerovićs [2], the family to whom he delivered his charges for the night: “Do you know who these people are? They’re going to Sarajevo to throw bombs and kill the Archduke who is going to come there.” Princip then showed his hosts the weapons.

[1] The name Popović is common, and one should not confuse Major Rade Popović, the Border Guards officer, with the more famous Colonel Cedomilj Popović, a co-founder, Central Committee member and future secretary of the Black Hand, or with the young Cvijetko Popović, member of the Sarajevo cut-out cell.
[2] The Kerovićs subsequently came to grief. The Austrians tried them for supporting terrorists, and Nedjo Kerović, who had given the boys a lift on his cart, received a death sentence – eventually commuted to twenty years imprisonment. His father Mitar received a sentence of imprisonment for life.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand inspecting his troops during a military manoeuvre, on June 27, 1914 in Sarajevo, the day before his assassination.

When the boys arrived in Sarajevo by train from Tuzla, they were expected by a second group of operatives, four men strong and led by Black Hand member Danilo Ilić. Ilić had recruited three more youngsters: a Muslim carpenter from Herzegovina, Muhamed Mehmetbasić, and two local schoolboys, one Cvijetko Popović and the seventeen year-old Vaso Cubrilović, brother of the aforementioned loquacious schoolteacher. That the latter had never met Ilić before that day, and that the three would not meet Princip and the others until after the coup shows that the second cell was devised, ab initio, as a cut-out. “In this connection,” as Christopher Clark points out, “Mehmedbasić was an inspired choice, because he was a willing, if incompetent, assassin, and thus useful backup for the Belgrade cell, but not a Serb. As Black Hand members, Ilić and Princip could be depended upon (in theory) to take their own lives, or at least remain silent after the event. The Sarajevo boys would be unable to testify, for the simple reason that they knew nothing about the larger background to the plot. The impression would thus emerge that this was a purely local undertaking, with no links to Belgrade.”

Leaving the train …

While there are small details in which the accounts of what happened at Sarajevo on that morning of June 28, 1914 differ, the main outlines are clear. A motorcade of four cars (some sources say six) waited for the royal visitors, who arrived around 10 a.m., at the train station, to take them down Appel Quay, the promenade that runs along the Miljacka River to the town hall where the official welcome ceremony was to take place.

Leaving the City Hall
Leaving the City Hall

It was a sunny day but an ominous date. On June 28, St. Vitus’ Day in Austria, Vidov Dan in Bosnia, 525 years ago, in AD 1389, the Ottoman Turks had defeated the troops of Tsar Stepan Dusan’s – fictitious – Serbian Empire at the legendary Battle on Kosovo Field, and consequently this day had become the Serbian National Anniversary day; more important than ever in the present year, for the celebrations of 1914 were to be the first after the “liberation” of Kosovo and Macedonia – resulting from the Second Balkan War – in the previous year.

On a more positive note, this June 28 was also the royal couple’s fourteenth wedding anniversary, and a welcome side effect of visiting the provinces was that Sophie could spend the day on the side of her husband without, as in Vienna, being relegated to a background role by the Habsburg court protocol.

The seven conspirators had positioned themselves strategically along the honoured guests’ travel route, which was the same one used at every state visit. Official security was conspicuously absent: “The espalier of troops who usually lined the kerbs on such occasions was nowhere to be seen, so that the motorcade passed virtually unprotected in front of the dense crowds. Even the special security detail was missing – its chief had mistakenly climbed into one of the cars with three local Bosnian officers, leaving the rest of his men behind at the railway station.”


Three bridges span the river along the part of the Appel Quay the motorcade was to follow. At the first one, Cumurija Bridge, Mehmedbasić, Cubrilović and Cabrinović had posted themselves, on the riverside; opposite, on the landward side, waited Cvijetko Popović and Danilo Ilić – the latter, unarmed, seemed to rehearse the role of maitre d’honneurs. At the second bridge, the Latin Bridge, Gavrilo Princip waited alone; Trifko Grabez was posted on the third, the Imperial Bridge. It seems that the attempt was to take place at Cumurija Bridge, and Princip and Grabez were the reserve or backups, should unexpected developments occur.

The motorcade rolled in the direction of Cumurija Bridge. In the first car were the town’s mayor, Fehim Effendi Curcić and Dr. Edmund Gerde, the superintendent of the police. In the second car’s landaulet backseats rode the royal guests, facing them, on the flip seat, was General Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia. On the front seat, aside the chauffeur sat Lieutenant-Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, bodyguard and the car’s owner. They were followed by cars filled with local police, lower honoraries and retainers.

The cavalcade moved towards Mehmedbasić, who – alas – at the point of its closest proximity found himself paralysed, struck by dread and terror, as he had been five months earlier at an aborted attempt of his own at Potiorek. Next in line was Cabrinović, who took out his bomb and armed it by breaking the detonator – a percussion cap — against the next lamppost. It reported with a loud crack, alarming Harrach and the driver. They turned around, perhaps thinking that a tire had exploded, yet when the chauffeur saw a dark shape flying towards the limousine, he immediately accelerated. The bomb fell short – some say the archduke himself deflected it; others maintain it simply bounced off the back. It hit the street and exploded below the following car, wounding a few of its passengers. Only later was it determined that the detonator – in exploding – had caused a small wound on the Duchess’s neck. When the archduke saw the wreck of the third car, he ordered the motorcade to stop so that the injured – among then Potiorek’s aide-de-camp Colonel Merizzi – might receive first aid and be brought to the hospital. Then the cavalcade proceeded to the Town Hall, where an abbreviated ceremony was to be held after whose completion the royal couple planned to visit the victims in the infirmary.

Stop after first attempt, Cabrinović's bomb
Stop after the first attempt, Cabrinović’s bomb

Cabrinović had meanwhile been fished out of the – almost dry – riverbed whither he had jumped to get time to swallow the small cyanide wrapper. The poison failed to work, for some unexplained reason, and, after being beaten up for a minute, he was taken to the police station. Cubrilović watched him, paralysed – like Mehmedbasić -­ and Popović, overcome with dread, hid away his bomb in the nearest building. Only Princip retained his composure; initially he had assumed that the explosion of Cabrinović’s bomb reported success, but when he saw Cabrinović arrested and the royal carriage resume motion in his direction, he thought of firing. The car’s speed denied him a clear shot, yet he remained calm enough to take up a new position, on the way the cavalcade was to use on its return. There he waited.

Meanwhile, the procession had arrived at the Town Hall, and the mayor had begun to read his prepared lines, which included the assertion that “all the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness, and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highness’s most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes ….” The archduke was not convinced, it seems – he had kept almost quiet since the explosion but now urgently inquired whether bombs were indeed part of the cordial welcome. “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous. Now you may speak.” The mayor’s address was over mercifully quick, and Franz Ferdinand asked Governor Potiorek whether one had to expect further attempts. The general did not think so, but advised to skip the rest of the official program. The party should either drive back straight to Ilidze, the small resort town where the royal couple had stayed the last three days, or return, via the Governor’s mansion, to the railway station.

Change of route
Change of route

Luigi Albertini’s collaborator and amanuensis Luciano Magrini was able to talk to two of the conspirators, Vaso Cubrilović and Mohamed Mehmedbasić, during a visit in Serbia in the autumn of 1937, and we shall follow the resulting account:

“The Archduke objected that he must first visit Colonel Merizzi at the garrison hospital, although his wound was known to be slight. Potiorek then suggested that they should go there avoiding the town and once more passing along the Appel Quay where – he said – no one expected the procession to pass. This was not true; because the press had published that on the return from the Town Hall the procession was to pass again along the Appel Quay as far as the Latin bridge. In any case, this was the plan followed.

At the trial Princip stated that when he heard the explosion of Cabrinović’s bomb he moved with the crowd in that direction and saw that the procession had come to a standstill. Thinking that ‘all was over’, i.e. that the attempt was successful, and seeing Cabrinović taken away by the police, he thought of shooting him to prevent his talking and then committing suicide himself. But he gave up the idea when he perceived that the procession had moved off again. …

The cars again took the route via the Appel Quay. The Duchess, who from the Town Hall was to have proceeded straight to the Konak [the Governor’s mansion], decided to accompany her husband and again took her seat beside him, while Harrach took up position on the running board on the left side of the car, so as to cover the Archduke with his body. But Potiorek and the chief of police, who did not expect a second attempt, not only failed to realize the danger of passing along the first part of the Quay again, but also omitted the essential precaution of giving clear instructions to the chauffeurs, particularly to the driver of the Archduke’s car. What happened was that the front car containing the chief of police drove along the Appel Quay, but at the Latin Bridge took a right-hand turn into the narrow Francis Joseph Street, the Archduke’s car naturally following suit.”

It was at this moment that the confusion over the correct route to be taken proved fatal. Harrach’s sleek sports car had no reverse gear, which meant that the car had first to be stopped, the engine disengaged, and the vehicle was pushed slowly back out of Franz Joseph Street, to Appel Quay, by hand. This delay of perhaps twenty seconds gave Princip relatively much time to draw and steady his weapon, while the fact that the procession was essentially standing instead of moving made his aim much more certain and accurate.

Princip was not more than a few feet away from his target, at point-blank distance, and fired a round each at the archduke and the duchess with Harrach looking on – in horror – from the wrong, the opposite side of the car. The count later reported to one of Francis Ferdinand’s biographers:

“While with one hand I drew out my handkerchief to wipe the blood from the Archduke’s lips, Her Highness cried: ‘For God’s sake! What has happened to you?’ Then she sank down from her seat with her face between the Archduke’s knees. I had no idea that she had been hit and thought that she had fainted from shock. Then His Royal Highness said: ‘Soferl, Soferl! Don’t die. Live for my children!’

Thereupon I seized the Archduke by the coat-collar to prevent his head from sinking forwards and asked him: ‘Is Your Royal Highness in great pain?’ To which he clearly replied: ‘It is nothing.’ Now his expression changed, and he repeated six or seven times: ‘It is nothing,’ more and more losing consciousness and with a fading voice. Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in the throat, caused by the loss of blood, which ceased on the arrival at the Konak. The two unconscious forms were carried into the Konak where death soon supervened.”

This photograph has often been claimed to show the actucal arrest of Gavrilo Princip but has been established to show the detention of innocent bystander Ferdinand Behr
This photograph has often been claimed to show the actual arrest of Gavrilo Princip but has been established to show the detention of innocent bystander Ferdinand Behr

The gun was secured and the car preserved, both on display in the Austrian Army Museum.

A second wave of urgent telegrams spewed forth from the Sarajevo postal station. After the first attempt, the archduke himself had directed a telegram to his uncle, the Emperor, asserting the couple’s well-being, while the local reporters filed their stories. Now, at just past 11 a.m. local time, the news had changed in such dramatic fashion that at first many people refused to believe it. A moment was frozen in history; as acknowledged in the words of Christopher Clark, “the Sarajevo murders, like the murder of President John F. Kennedy at Dallas in 1963, were an event whose hot light captured the people and places of a moment and burned them into memory. People recalled exactly where they were and whom they were with when the news reached them.”

What was yet to be determined was the event’s impact on the world. Technically, a prince had been assassinated – worse had happened in the history of the continent -­ but it soon became painfully clear that a whole age had come to an end on the streets of Sarajevo – the age of liberalism, civil government, and the belief in the possible, nay, imminent augmentation of the human condition by technological and philosophical progress. It turned out that what had been murdered at the crossing of Appel Quay and Franz Joseph Street was nothing less than the pride and optimism of the rational age – the foundations of the “Proud Tower” – rejected by irrationalism, nationalism, vanity and hate. When the consequences of Sarajevo had played out, thirty-one respectively seventy-six years later, in 1945 or 1990, depending on one’s point of view, Europe had lost power over the globe. Sarajevo marked the beginning of the end.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

The investigation and trial will be the subject of a latter post – tentatively named “À la recherche du temps perdu” – In Search of the Lost Time. Preview:

Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian Soldiers
Gavrilo Princip being taken to court by Austro-Hungarian Soldiers
An undated picture from the historical archives of Sarajevo shows Gavrilo Princip (first row-C) and other members of the “Mlada Bosna” (“Young Bosnia”) revolutionary group in court, as they stand trial for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Born a peasant boy in 1894 in the remote mountain village of Obljaj, Princip was a passionate Serb and Slav nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 100 years ago this June 28, is widely considered to have sparked World War I.

Links: Great pics in French article: http://graphics.france24.com/assassination-sarajevo-1914-archduke-princip-photos/index.html

Die Zeit: Karten – https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article129560739/Das-Attentat-das-Europa-in-den-grossen-Krieg-trieb.html

Zum Auto: https://www.welt.de/motor/gallery129531678/Das-Auto-in-dem-Franz-Ferdinand-starb.html

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The original Schlieffen Plan – Introduction, Translation and Maps*

Alfred von Schlieffen Chief of the German General Staff
Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff

Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan. Link to the PDF – File

Author’s remark: Please keep in mind that this post is about the 1905 original Great Memorandum of Count Schlieffen – NOT about what happened in 1914.

The “Schlieffen Plan”, like any other document, must be seen in the historical context in which it originated. Two arguments seem to be particularly valid here: (1) The plan arose from a certain tradition – that of the Prussian General Staff to plan and carry out rapid campaigns for limited objectives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an alternative. Holger Herwig – with whom this author does not necessarily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the anthology “The Origins of World War I,” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81735-8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s critics lacked a viable alternative. Their vision (or fear) of a peoples‘ war lasting anywhere between seven and thirty years was unacceptable – to Kaiser, generals, parliament and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobilization for total war was anathema to one and all.
Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blueprint of a short war for limited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prussian military annals – was to deny the very viability of what the historian Gerhard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“.
Put bluntly, to concede that the vaunted Prussian Genera Staff could no longer conduct short wars of annihilation was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twentieth century. There were few takers in Germany for such a radical notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After having lost the Great War, however, in various post-war works of German officers Hermann von Kuhl, Gerhard Tappen, Wilhelm Groener and Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) historians directed by former Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Wolfgang Förster, a thesis or narrative was developed that held:

I. That in the years leading to 1905, the former Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, had conceived a development and operations plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that all but guaranteed victory, and

II. that it was the failure of 1914 Chief of Staff Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to follow and execute the plan properly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the famous plan was not made available – not a snippet of it was published to support the allegations. Yet in principle – so much was known – the plan prescribed an attack on northern France through Belgium and an encirclement and subsequent siege of Paris, which should force a French capitulation – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most German military archives were destroyed in the subsequent Allied bombings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, German monarchist historian Gerhard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memorandum of 1906 (backdated to 1905) at the National Archives in Washington. Indeed it appeared that the original memorandum had not been stored in the ministry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daughter. In 1958 he published the paper in English, with a foreword by B.H. Liddell-Hart, under the title “The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth” at Praeger, New York (the original German version appeared 1956 at R. Oldenbourg, Munich). [No ISBN Number or Library of Congress Card available] It is available here as a PDF File – please read carefully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great German General Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blueprint for World War I, although on closer inspection one might develop severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memorandum describes war solely against France – NOT a two-front war including Russia. The plan employs 94 divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had guard duties at the North Sea Coast and around invested cities like Maubeuge and Brussels) – but most crucial are logistic and spatial impossibilities. John Keegan analysed them in “The First World War”, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, and I hope I will be forgiven if I quote Keegan’s analysis at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memorandum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] midnight pettifoggery had as its object an exact adjustment not of German numbers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Belgian and French road network could carry. Such calculations were
the groundwork of staff-college training: students, transferring from prepared tables the length of a marching column – twenty-nine kilometres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determine how
many troops could be pushed through a given sector at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilometres was the limit of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilometres long would remain near or at the marching-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin parallel roads, the tails would advance half the distance, if four three- quarters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allowing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilometres further on; in practice, as Schlieffen admitted in one of his amendments, parallel roads were at best to be found one to two kilometres apart.

As his great wheeling movement was to sweep forward on a front of three hundred kilometres with about thirty corps, however, each would have only ten kilometres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best seven parallel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The drawback was serious in itself; more seriously, it absolutely forbade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radius of the wheeling movement. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the question how the six (non-existing) Ersatz-Corps that the attentive reader will see appearing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Paris?

It is at this point that a careful reader of the Great Memorandum recognises a plan falling apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Paris, the central strongpoint of the “great
fortress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indication of how they have reached Paris and its outskirts. The “capacity of the railways” is irrelevant; railways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attackers no further than the German frontier with Belgium and France. Thereafter it was the road network that led forward, and the plodding boots of the infantry that would measure out the speed of

Schlieffen himself reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilometres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and September 1914, German, French and British units would all exceed that, sometimes day after
day – the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment averaged sixteen and a half miles during the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 September, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respectively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the outer wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thirteen miles a day between 18 August and 5 September, 1914, over a distance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlieffen as his plan’s clinching device, to arrive at the decisive place of action, they would have actually needed to march not only further and faster, which defied probabilities, but to do so along the same roads as those occupied by the corps already existing, a simple impossibility.

It is not surprising therefore, to find buried in the text of the Great Memorandum its author’s admission that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a conclusion and, in a later admission, “on such an extended line we
shall still need greater forces than we have so far estimated.” He had run into a logistical impasse. Railways would position the troops for his great wheel; the Belgian and French roads would allow them to reach the
outskirts of Paris in the sixth week from mobilisation day; but they would not arrive in the strength necessary to win a decisive battle unless they were accompanied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no
room. His plan for a lightning victory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeonholed for use nonetheless.

In the original 1956 edition of Gerhard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low quality. I have placed them in appropriate parts of the text and added coloured lines for better following the argument.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Road to War – European Imperialism (I)

Europe after the Franco-German War of 1870/71
Europe after the Franco-German War of 1870/71

From “The Little Drummer Boy“, Chapter XIII:


The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too. (Christopher Clark, on the perception of pre-1914 politics.)

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review what happened.

I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war” – as Clausewitz had famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.

II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic government option, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.

III. Due to erroneous lessons drawn from the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.

IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power” [1] Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.

[1] In 1961, Professor Fritz Fischer of Hamburg University published “Griff nach der Weltmacht” (which translates as ‘A Grip for World Power’ but was titled in its 1967 English translation “Germany’s Aims in the First World War”). The book unveils the abyss of a German conspiracy for world supremacy, which apparently was undertaken by all sorts of influential people, from generals to newspaper owners, by their dreaming up nasty plans for world domination after they had won the war.
The introduction by Hajo Holborn of Yale argues that Germany strove to become “a ‘world power’, equal to Britain and Russia, and that her citizens “displayed a shocking disregard for the rights of other nations, especially of the small states.” (5) While examples for these assertions can be found without difficulty, they seem to be beside the point: all these arguments can be reciprocated by “to quoque”; for why should Germany not strive to world power if Great Britain, France, the United States or Russia did? In regards to the freedom of other nations, Indians, Boers or Chinese could teach lessons about British concern for their rights and Cubans or Philippines comment on American charity. One may speculate what kind of social order Tsarist Russia or the Ottomans of Turkey would have imposed over conquered territories. Mutatis mutandis, none of these German plans ever saw the lights of factuality, while French revanchism ran rampant after 1918 and in its inflexibility much aided the demise of the German Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. What Griff nach der Weltmacht provided was an ex post facto argument that Germany’s sinister plans justified the war; that the victors saved humanity from eternal Teutonic overlordship. This is pure utilitarianism, entelechial adjudication a posteriori, and thus of little significance in this investigation.

Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914
Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914

But to some degree, colonization was a game, a show; while the gold and diamonds of the Cape provinces and the copper, ores and minerals from the Ugandan mines unquestionably were great economic boons for Great Britain, and other possessions could at least serve as strategic bases or coaling stations, there were just as many places which were useless, or, worse, a drain on resources. Most of the German possessions fell into this category. Yet psychological contemplations counted just as much, sometimes more, than profit or strategy. There was a theory that many statesmen subscribed to; the thesis that the riches of the globe would ultimately divided between a very small number of contenders. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies and pro-German Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain believed that “the tendency of the time is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires, and the minor kingdoms – those which are non- progressive – seem to fall into a secondary and subordinate place ….” (2) The French politician Darcy opined that “… those who do not advance go backwards and who goes back goes under.” (3)

Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914
Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914

Because of her fragile inner condition, Germany depended, in a sense, on success in her foreign policy, which included some more exotic colonialist adventures. Paul Kennedy observed:

There remained the danger that failure to achieve diplomatic or territorial successes would affect the delicate internal politics of Wilhelmine Germany, whose Junker elite worried about the (relative) decline of the agricultural interest, the rise of organized labour, and the growing influence of Social Democracy in a period of industrial boom.

It was true that after 1897 the pursuit of Weltpolitik was motivated to a considerable extent by the calculation that this would be politically popular and divert attention from Germany’s domestic-political fissures.

But the regime in Berlin always ran the dual risk that if it backed down from a confrontation with a “foreign Jupiter” [2], German nationalist opinion might revile and denounce the Kaiser and his aides; whereas, if the country became engaged in an all-out war, it was not clear whether the natural patriotism of the masses of workers, soldiers, and sailors would outweigh their dislike of the archconservative Prusso-German state.  While some observers felt that a war would unite the nation behind the emperor, others feared it would further strain the German socio-political fabric. (4)

[2] Here Kennedy relates to a famous speech of Bernhard von Bülow, then Foreign Minister, who complained in 1899: “We cannot allow any foreign power, any foreign Jupiter to tell us: ‘What can be done? The world is already partitioned.'”

Yet at the same time, Kennedy argues, the overall vexations of Germany were not too dissimilar from those experienced by other nations, for all of them, whether more liberal England or more authoritative Russia, felt the need for the establishment – and retention – of a “place in the sun”, which ought to deflect the public attention from the increasing social conflicts of the industrial age.

It has been argued by many historians that imperial Germany was a “special case,” following a ‘Sonderweg’ (“special path”), which would one day culminate in the excesses of National Socialism. Viewed solely in terms of political culture and rhetoric around 1900, this is a hard claim to detect:

Russian and Austrian anti-Semitism was at least as strong as German [the French Dreyfus affair might compete as well, ¶], French chauvinism as marked as the German, Japan’s sense of cultural uniqueness and destiny as broadly held as Germany’s. Each of these powers examined here was “special,” and in the age of imperialism was all too eager to assert its specialness. (7) [3]

[3] Paul Kennedy adds: “In this age of the ‘new imperialism,’ similar calls [as in Germany] could be heard in every other Great Power; as Gilbert Murray wickedly observed in 1900, each country seemed to be asserting, ‘We are the pick and flower of nations … above all things qualified for governing others.'” (9)

The psychological factors of the ongoing imperialist competition, however, were of a nature that the governments in question could not simply mollify by a new treaty with power X or the establishment of one more army corps. They had a life of their own, and in retrospect it would seem that what the continental powers crucially lacked were reliable crisis- control mechanisms.

Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli
Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli

At the Congress of Berlin 1878, Bismarck had reached a first settlement of open questions regarding the Balkan countries, which, however, remained the powder keg of international relations. But nobody was truly pleased at the outcome and the rivalries continued.

The feudal inheritance, the proximity of power and influence near the respective imperial or royal courts, made sure that there was always more than a single foreign policy; too often, there were as many shades of foreign policy as there were important courtiers. The evil effects of compartmentalization added to the frequent befuddlements of the administrative processes: the general staffs tended to treat the foreign offices as handmaidens; competition between the different military services was often vicious; and in some countries even intra-service turf wars were ferocious enough to paralyse communications.

In Part II we will have a look at the exploits of the milites gloriosi in the Russian officer corps and the consequences for Russian policies.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19 – To Be Continued – Edited from original text here, footnotes and bibliography here)

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On the Cusp of War – July 28/29, 1914

A picture acquired from the historical archives of Sarajevo on June 28, 2014 shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand inspecting his troops during military manoeuvre, on June 27, 1914 in Sarajevo, the day before his assassination.

It was Christopher Clark who recently, in “The Sleepwalkers”, had the beneficial idea to have a critical look at who and what exactly the people were who did, in fact, determine the fate of the continent (and much of the world) in these hot days of July 1914, respectively in the years preceding this summer.

If we survey the European chancelleries in the spring and early summer of 1914, it is impossible not to be struck by the unfortunate configuration of personalities. From Castelnau and Joffre to Zhilinsky, Conrad von Hötzendorf, Wilson and Moltke, the senior military men were all exponents of the strategic offensive who wielded a fluctuating but important influence on the political decision-makers.

In 1913-14 first Delcassé, then Paléologue, both hardliners, represented France in St. Petersburg; Izvolsky, still determined to avenge the “humiliation” of 1909, officiated in Paris. The French minister in Sofia, Andre Panafieu, observed in December 1912 that Izvolsky was the “best ambassador in Paris,” because he had “personal interests against Germany and Austria,” and his Russian colleagues noticed that whenever he came to speak of Austrian policy vis-a-vis Belgrade his voice took on “a palpable tone of bitterness which had not left him since the time of the annexation.” The excitable Austrophobe Miroslav Spalajković was now at the Serbian ministry in St. Petersburg – his old enemy Count Forgach was helping to formulate policy in Vienna. One is reminded of a Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little. [1]

Yet behind the facades, their masculinity was of the brittle sort. If we look at the photographs – as Stefan Zweig observed, their pompousness makes us laugh – that portray their stiff officiousness, burliness, lovingly tendered moustaches and uncomfortable clothing, we recognize vanity – men for whom appearances were the armour of the soul and who projected overdrawn notions of ego and honour as well as clandestine dread of volatility and impotence upon the battlefield of diplomacy, and when words failed they substituted blood – that of younger men.

The burial of Francis Ferdinand was a lesser affair …

At no time was the “honour” of nations an important if imaginary quality like then, in whose pursuit tens of millions of men were slaughtered and maimed. The sizable egos of fin-de-siècle manhood, however, came with that sort of irascibility which the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had so successfully targeted. Of course, the Serbian government – well aware of its laxity towards terrorist organizations – could have taken the unruffled point of view that ten years later no one would care whether a few Austrian detectives had pursued their own investigations in Belgrade after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand or not, and it would seem that except for the rapid Russian intervention Pasić would have grudgingly submitted to the Austrian yoke. But once the honour of the Serbian nation – not always its most conspicuous characteristic – was in doubt, acquiescence was impossible – et pereat mundus.

Sarajevo after anti-Serb riots …

While St. Petersburg discussed the mobilization scenarios, Bethmann Hollweg in Berlin presented Wilhelm’s idea of an Austrian “Halt in Belgrade” (that a temporary Austrian occupation of Belgrade might suffice), as the Kaiser’s proposal of the 28th came to be known, to Vienna on the evening of the same day – albeit in a watered-down form. In his initial cable, a sceptical Hollweg minimized the impact of His Master’s Voice by cautioning Tschirschky to carefully “avoid giving the impression that we wish to restrain Austria.” But on the next day, July 29, the chancellor changed his tune, perhaps cautioned by Lichnowsky’s warnings that England seemed likely to stand by the Triple Entente yet considered a demarche in the direction of a “Halt in Belgrade” solution possible, and instructed Tschirschky to:

“Please communicate the enclosed (FN 1) to Count Berchtold at once, adding that we regard such compliance on the part of Serbia as suitable basis for negotiations on condition of an occupation of Serbian territory as a guarantee.” (3) 

[FN 1: A copy of Lichnowsky’s telegram from London, which laid out an Italian proposal to get the Great Powers, i.e. France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy to formulate terms under which Serbia could accept the Austrian ultimatum in toto, and cited Sir Grey’s opinion that it might be “possible to bring about an understanding as to the extent of Austrian military operations and demands,” which in turn Hollweg thought close enough to the HALT IN BELGRADE proposal that England  would also support the latter.]

Initially, Hollweg had been less than pleased with Wilhelm’s initiative for, essentially of little flexibility, he was loath to give up his policy of ‘localization’ of the conflict, although it became more likely with every passing day that Russia could not be neutralized. The chancellor did not believe that Russia would resort to war, but if she threatened to do so, he was prepared to call the bluff. It was no bluff, it turned out – Russia, sure of France and almost sure of Great Britain, did not blink. The prospect of unintended consequences occasioned a change in the chancellor’s opinion – Wilhelm’s offer of mediation began to make sense. In the night of July 29/30, Hollweg instructed Tschirschky to tell Berchtold that:

“We are, of course, prepared to fulfill our duty as allies, but must decline to let ourselves be dragged by Vienna, irresponsibly and without regard to our advice, into a world conflagration.” (4)

Actual dates of Declarations of War

Suddenly the dynamics of Austro-German relations had exchanged their polarity – initially the German government had urged Vienna to speedy action, so as to pre-empt all these problems that now towered before the two, while Austria had been her usual perfunctory self – now, as Hollweg sought to pull the emergency brake, Berchtold turned a deaf ear. But instead of doubling his efforts, Hollweg quickly fell back into apathy, submitting his own fate and that of the nation to the preordained but unfathomable offices of Divine Providence. It should have been clear by then that the best scenario available to the German chancellor was to urge on, nay, force the Kaiser’s proposal, HALT IN BELGRADE, down Berchtold’s throat, no matter the cost.

But this Hollweg did not do – he did not correspond at all with Tschirschky on the matter on this morning of July 30. Instead, he spent the day preoccupied by the tumultuous commotion but little constructive discussion precipitated in Berlin by the Tsar’s ominous telegram of 1:20 am, July 30 – the one that mentioned the “military measures … decided five days ago,” and the delayed receipt of Pourtales’s message sent on 3 pm the day before, informing Berlin of the Russian mobilization. The bad news sparked the Kaiser’s famous comments:

“So that [the five days mentioned by the Tsar] is almost a week ahead of us. And these measures are supposed to be of defence against Austria, who is not attacking him!!! I cannot commit myself to mediation any more, since the Tsar, who appealed for it, has at the same time been secretly mobilizing behind my back.

…  It  is  only  a  manoeuvre  to  keep  us  dangling  and  increase  the  lead  he  has  already gained  over  us. …

According to this the Tsar with his appeal for my help has simply been acting a part and leading us up the garden path! That means I have got to mobilize as well!” (5)

[1] Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914, Allen Lane 2012, ISBN 978-0-713-99942-6, pp. 358-9

[3] [4] [5] Albertini, Luigi, The Origins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1-292631-26-X, pp. (II), 504; p. (III) 1; pp. (III) 2-3

To be continued … (© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Triple Alliance

Triple Entente and Triple Alliance 1914

The Congress of Berlin had not only addressed questions of the Balkans but many other points of interest, and one of its results had been that Bismarck and Disraeli had granted France “a free hand in Tunis,” for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Mediterranean instead of courting Russia. License for France, however, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new possessions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather underdeveloped and would be expected to do her homework first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the aforementioned psychological desiderata of successful imperialism.

In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and established a protectorate over the region, but because at this time Gladstone and the liberals were in power in England, far more sceptical to French acquisitions in Africa than Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had been, Italy thought she might enlist British aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But England was loath to replace a French threat to her Mediterranean position with a potentially worse Italian one and Rome got nowhere. Having arrived there, only an understanding with Germany could help, but then Bismarck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pursuing a “jackal policy”. Thus it took another eighteen months of horse-trading before, on May 20, 1882, Germany,Austria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alliance“, valid for five years.

The contract began with the assurance that the parties “have agreed to conclude a Treaty which by its essentially conservative and defensive nature pursues only the aim of forestalling the dangers that might threaten the security of Their States and the Peace of Europe.” Because it was exactly such conservative, peaceful and defensive agreements that proved unable to stop the conflagration of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, summarized by Luigi Albertini:

The High Contracting Parties mutually promised peace and friendship, pledged themselves to enter into no alliance or engagement directed against one of their States and to exchange views on political and economic questions of a general nature that might arise, [and] promised mutual support within the limits of their own interests (Article I).

Austria and Germany undertook in the case of unprovoked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same obligation was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggression by France on Germany without direct provocation (Article II).

If one or two of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not signatories of the treaty, the casus foederis would arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties (Article III).

In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a signatory to the Treaty, which threatened its security, the two others would maintain benevolent neutrality, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Article IV). (28)

The attentive reader will have identified two problems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the signatories is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the question under which conditions this might be the case. Second, some scenarios were left out; for example, the contract would not apply if Austria would be attacked by Russia alone. The alliance was, of course, directed against France; Bismarck, whose opinion of the Italians had not much improved, saw the purpose of the Triple Alliance less in winning Italy but in preventing her from associating with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”, ¶]. By 1888, Romania had essentially joined the Triple Alliance, and the situation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, continental equilibrium: France was isolated, and Bismarck himself would ensure that the interests of Russia and Austria on the Balkan would not collide. GreatBritain’s interests would profit from a stabilization of the continent as well and Russia’s aspirations on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.

But Italy remained a complicated customer; she had hoped to gain a seat on the highest table with her signature on the Triple Alliance, but had to find out that the “Dreikaiserbund” courts, Berlin, Vienna and St.Petersburg, debated Balkan affairs, in which Rome believed to have a voice, without her. Yet despite the Dreikaiserbund, Austro-Russian tensions developed over Bulgaria, in whose affairs Austria wanted to retain an interest that Russia was not willing to grant her. 

After some mending of socks, the Triple Alliance was renewed on February 20, 1887 on identical terms, except for the addition of an Austro-Italian protocol that attempted to regulate the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a German-Italian agreement in which Italy reassured herself of German assistance in the case of a clash with France in central or western North Africa.

Bismarck saw room for a further improvement of the status quo if Great Britain and Italy were to come to an understanding against France, and when Franco-British relations in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Minister Freycinet publicly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass permanently under English rule because ‘he who is master of Egypt is in large part master of the Mediterranean,'” Lord Salisbury began to make overtures to Italy. Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Britain signed an agreement regarding the retention of the status quo and pledging mutual support in Africa, an understanding Austria joined in late March 1887 to the chagrin of the aggressive Hungarian faction. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s attention that her planned occupation of Tripoli, which belonged to the Ottomans, might constitute a change of this status quo, and when the Italian Foreign Minister Crispi wrote to Salisbury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anticipate a similar French plan, Salisbury made clear that British support would not extend to such adventures. He wrote back:

“The interests of Great Britain as also those of Italy do not permit that Tripolitania should have a fate similar to that of Tunisia. We must absolutely guard against such an eventuality when it threatens us. …

If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France having taken any aggressive measure, she would expose herself to the reproach of having revived the Near Eastern question in very disadvantageous conditions.”

On the eastern side of the Triple Alliance, Austria seemed to contemplate war with Russia over Serbia and Bulgaria. Kalnoky, the new Austrian Foreign Minister, approached Bismarck with his generals’ wish to clarify the exact conditions under which the casus foederis under the Austro-German Alliance of 1879 would arise. The problem was that the Reinsurance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bismarck had to prevaricate. The Austro-German Alliance, he replied, provided for German assistance in the case of a Russian attack on Austria, but not for an Austrian attack on Russia, as he thought to have made clear to the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin in January 1886:

“If Russia attacks Austria-Hungary, Germany will come to her assistance with all her forces, but it is not possible to let Germany play the role of auxiliary army to increase Austro-Hungarian influence on the Danube. Not a member of parliament would be found to vote even a single mark for such a purpose.”(33)

In a speech to the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, Bismarck had publicly clarified, with an eye to the Hungarian hotheads that:

“Our relations with Austria-Hungary are based on the consciousness of each one of us that the whole existence of each as a Great Power is a necessity to the other in the interests of European equilibrium; but these relations do not, as they are interpreted at times in the Hungarian Parliament, rest on the principle that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy completely at the service of the other.

This is an utter impossibility. There exist specifically Austrian interests which we cannot undertake to defend, and there are specifically German interests which Austria cannot undertake to defend. We cannot each adopt the other’s special interests.”

Austria had become the problem in both the Triple Alliance – for perpetual Austro-Italian tensions – and the Dreikaiserbund, due to her frequent spats and spars with Russia. In the winged words of Norman Stone, “Austria-Hungarywas trying to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rankone.” It was a sign of the respect Bismarck commanded in all European capitals that he was able to balance the diverging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was inoffice.

But, as Luigi Albertini commented, “Bismarck’s resignation in March 1890 produced a sense of dismay all over Europe. His authority and prestige, the veneration which surrounded him, the fear he inspired, were beyond compare,”and observed that “the youthful sovereign who had dropped him [Wilhelm II] had no policy of his own, and a sinister influence on German foreign relations was exercised by the tortuous Holstein who, in his hatred for Bismarck, reversed all the latter’s directives.”

All in all, the Triple Alliance never truly existed.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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The Triple Entente

Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another six years, but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply, and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St.  Petersburg, when her new PrimeMinister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance”in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.”

This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties one could not check whether it was a lie. Thus Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in the unheard of invitation of the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace. A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government approved a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassadorin Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:

“1.With the aim of defining and consecrating the ENTENTE CORDIALE which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.

2.In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.”

Elementary scrutiny,however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist the sort of Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, which blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus it took an additional twenty months of haggling and dickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:

“1.If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.

2.In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.”

The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coordination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed.

Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make no military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could notstand aside.”

This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date.9 What was true in 1894 was even truer twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.”

Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time.

The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.

General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from an aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to theTsar: “Mobilization is declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of following suit, is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore in July 1914 when Russia was to be the first Power to order general mobilization.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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